Lightning-fast reflexes: the agile team

While many other teams in a business have some flexibility as far as deliverables, reporting and project timelines go, this is a luxury not often enjoyed by the finance team. But as the pace of doing business is so much faster today, is it not time the finance function became more agile too? We spoke to experienced CFOs and other industry experts to get their insight. By Toni Muir "Being agile requires openness, the reservation of judgement and the ability to turn on a dime," says Terrence Taylor, general manager: Talent, Analytics, Leadership and Learning at Discovery. You need people with a cosmopolitan outlook, an open mindset and an eclectic set of experiences, he adds, and a leader who is comfortable sharing leadership and power. But what exactly is an agile team, and what makes it so? Moreover, why is this important to the finance function?

Cindy Hess, chief financial officer at Pioneer Foods (pictured above right), provides a simple answer: "An agile team is a responsive team which is able to effectively react to rapidly changing and demanding business environments."

Heidi Volschenk, Director: Learning & Development at KPMG, agrees. The whole concept is about change, she says: "This includes how you deal with change, because change is tough, and most people will resist change to an extent. The immediate thing I think about is resilience. So for me, an agile team is one that can work or function with resilience."

Businesses need to be agile in order to be responsive, opines Ryan McDougall, group financial director at Trustco Group, and in order to be agile, a change in mind-set needs to happen - particularly for finance departments. "We are in this age now of social media and millennials, where everyone wants information and answers immediately. I think finance teams are in that area where they need to progress towards this, and stop being seen as the 'dinosaurs' of a business and instead be able to provide data in a more agile way," he says.

Core competencies and common failings

For Cindy, the core competencies of an agile team include high energy and intelligence, commercial acumen, an understanding of urgency, and the ability to see a "helicopter" view. Ryan adds attitude and a willingness to change into this mix. "If something is done the way it has been in the past, that doesn't necessarily mean it's right," he says. "We should always be open to change. If one department is reluctant to change it can slow down the speed of the whole organisation."

Heidi (pictured left) believes vision is key: "The reason for this is around focus. If you think about leadership in this whole VUCA notion [volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity], with everything changing around us, to be an agile leader you need to sort out among all the chaos what it is that you have to keep your focus on. You need to identify what is that critical target or goal that you've set for yourself and the team." An agile leader should also be mindful of blocking out some of that noise, she says. "Ensuring the team stays focused on what is important comes with a level of boldness and courage to say yes, there are all these other things, but this is our key focus right now." She adds that constant communication, along with effective communicate skills, are just as important: "Especially in terms of constant change. It can be so easy to lose someone along the way."

"You need people with a cosmopolitan outlook, an open mind-set and an eclectic set of experiences," says Terrence. "If you're a deep specialist asked to work in a very agile way, your training and mind-set are likely to get in the way. Agility requires you to change on a dime, so to speak. For example, a soccer player on a pitch needs to adjust and adapt very quickly - turn on a dime - as the ball changes direction. Specialists find that a bit difficult when they've worked for years in their specialty." He opines that openness and the ability to reserve judgement are also necessary traits: "If you see someone doing something in a certain way and you think, based on your training, that it's not the right way, you should withhold judgement and give the person the chance to still accomplish the task even if it's in a different way to how you would've done it yourself."

However, just because you have a group of people working together does not mean they are a team, opines Terrence. "A team is built once people get to understand each other and know each other's strengths and weaknesses in a lived rather than theoretical way. Once those types of experiences have happened and there's a genuine bond among team members, I find it makes a huge difference in how the team actually functions." People also underestimate the importance of emotional intelligence, he says, which works to ensure the team does not find itself mired down in a cycle of gossip.

Heidi also speaks to the value of emotional intelligence, which she believes plays a crucial role and says is a leadership imperative, as is eliciting quality feedback. "As a leader you need to ensure you get feedback. Because the more senior you become, the less people will give you feedback. So you need to find ways you will get feedback from those you trust, so that they're giving you feedback with the right intention." Heidi believes trust is another oft-overlooked area, and one which could well see a team fail. "Your trust in a team is absolutely crucial. You want to know you can rely on your team members. But it has to be a supported environment that they're working in, for example, if someone makes a mistake that mistake happens as part of a team and everyone will work together to make a plan. It comes back to resilience and people having the capacity to redeploy."

Ryan (pictured right) names a "month-end mind-set" as one of the most common failings of a finance team; that they can "coast until month-end and then rapidly churn out reports". Players who are too rigid in their role definition, as well as those who do not want to do things in a new or different way also hold back agility, he says.

Does size really matter?

"Many of us in corporates believe the larger our teams are, the more effective they are likely to be just from the point of view that you have more resources," says Terrence. But this is based on an assumption from the adage "many hands make light work", he adds. "Interestingly, based on studies done and from my own experiences, a smaller team can be just as effective as a larger team, producing as much or sometimes even more. It comes down to whether or not the team can synergise - it's important to synergise strengths to the task at hand. Larger teams can be agile but need certain things in place, such as someone who is good at process and coordinating work to ensure collaboration happens."

Building an agile team

They key to building an agile and flexible team, according to Heidi, is focus. "As a team leader you really need to sharpen focus. You also need to learn how to experiment a bit, which is something new, especially if you think about CFOs and FDs." Building unity in a team is also important, and goes hand in hand with strong communication skills, she says. Cindy agrees: "Effective communication and knowledge sharing is crucial. You need to speak clearly and unambiguously. If you're the leader, you also need to understand your team dynamics, and be sure to celebrate and reward the right behaviours and energy." Dissenters should be dealt with immediately, she adds.

Playing to the team's strengths will also serve you well, says Heidi. "When we talk about agility, you want people to also develop their skills, so if one person isn't there today another can fulfil that role. Playing off the various strengths of the team's members talks about the diversity that you have within a team - diversity of people as well as diversity of talents. Because your technical knowledge will get you through the door, but there's so much more than that."

"Making sure there is clarity about the purpose of the work that the team does is absolutely critical, as is integration among team members," says Terrence (pictured left). Formal meetings are one mechanism to ensure the latter, and there should be at least some type of formal meeting with the team that works at a frequency relevant to that team, he says. In addition, it is important to have "touch bases" or one-on-ones with individual team members, as these work to solidify the relationship between the team member and leader of the team, he says. "They also present an opportunity to offer support to team members and discuss any challenges they may be facing." Heidi agrees; the leader has to be present, she says: "They have to be in touch with what's going on and what's happening with their team members. Are they all on track and have they bought into the common goals?"

If the team is agile but could do with an edge, Cindy suggests heightening the commercial skills of team members, as well as ensuring a broader understanding of the rest of the business and an appreciation for the challenges faced by other portfolios or colleagues. In so doing, you create a corporate team spirit and a desire to contribute, she says.

Follow the leader

"The leader is the one creating the environment to learn," says Heidi. The leader has a dual role to play in both challenging the team and providing it with support, as well as finding the balance between these. Ryan believes the leader should be a person you can talk to and discuss things with, and not be seen as someone sitting in an "ivory tower". He says: "I believe work hard together, play hard together. Get to know each other on a personal level. You spend so much of your life with your co-workers, the better you can understand them, the better for teamwork."

In terms of soft skills, the team leader must be comfortable sharing leadership, and sharing power, says Terrence. "I think you have to be very in tune with the impact your emotions have on the team. It's amazing how the team looks to the leader to have a sense of how things are going and whether or not things are going well. A leader must be mindful that he or she is in a fishbowl and every aspect of their non-verbal behaviour is being observed and interpreted by the team. But if you've spent time understanding each other, the team can better calibrate what's happening with the leader. Hopefully the communication is good enough in the team for team members to approach the leader about this. Then again, the leader must be comfortable with being approached by the team."

In order to guide their team to better finance agility, Cindy feels it is important for whomever is leading the team to create strategic context. "The leader must demonstrate the behaviours required from the team. He or she must also define the outcomes the team needs to achieve and impress upon the team how their role enables or drives those outcomes." Ryan agrees: "What happens in larger organisations is that the CFO sits on committees like exco or the board and has a very strategic mind-set. But the finance staff sit on the opposite side of that spectrum. It's the CFO's role to bridge that gap and bring finance staff up to the strategic level, as well as to ensure that he or she communicates the finance team's compiled data and parametric information to the board in a fashion that they understand."

Terrence adds that being open to learning more about other areas of the business beyond your own department's niche, and understanding what it is that your department can contribute beyond just its traditional value-add, can aid agility. "Also important is staying abreast of what is happening in your industry and what is likely to happen in your industry." Speaking the language of decision makers in business will also help, he adds.

Is complexity the enemy of agility?

"In a purely technical way I agree," says Heidi, "because agility is all about coping with change and gaining that focus on what it is that's really important, even though there's so much complexity around us. I think you should keep things simple, because the more complexity you've got, at some point it becomes too much. It's difficult to keep focus if there's too much complexity." Business is inherently complex, says Cindy, although creating unnecessary complexity can destroy value. "Decluttering complexity requires intelligence and determination before it can be simplified," she says. Ryan answered both yes and no, as he says regulatory issues come into play too. "We need to understand why certain things are being reported, because often the regulatory requirements stem from the business requirements," he says. "If you can acknowledge the link between a complex environment and doing business it makes you more open to being flexible."

A fully functioning and agile finance team will take time and energy to put together, and a layered or step-by-step plan to get there may serve team members well, not to mention ease some of the strain of making the changes required. Communication and collaboration, as our experts advised, are key to making a smooth transition, as is a clear objective that everybody understands. Teams which are agile have a competitive edge over those that are not, and are better able to respond quickly and appropriately to changing business needs or market trends.

This article was first published in CFO Magazine. Read the magazine here.